Friday, May 10, 2013

Dawn of the Dead *** 1/2 (1978)

For horror movie aficionados George Romero's Dawn of the Dead has a permanent slot on their handful of must sees (its the Citizen Kane of zombie cinema).  Released in 1978, the film set a new standard for onscreen gore with grisly affects courtesy of the splatter master, Tom Savani. Besides being a gross out fest, the film also serves as a time capsule of the 1970s with its not so subtle commentary on consumerism.  In fact the film helped launch the zombie genre of films, comics, and a precursor to The Walking Dead. Upon first viewing, I remember being really frightened by the sense of doom throughout the film.  If the 1968 version tapped into  anxiety over social change, the 1978 incarnation looks at the more long-term threats to civilization i.e. energy supply.  In fact Dawn of the Dead is perfect to watch after listening to President Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech.*

I'm very old school when it comes horror films. At their best, scary movies are a window into collective cultural anxiety.  I'm sure Dawn of the Dead has inspired a few monographs on 1970s malaise.  Horror is the least respected film genre for few good reasons.  Sometimes for good reason due to their unrelenting misogyny and exploitative nature. For a time in the 1970s, auteur directors like Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg used the genre to great effect.  Modern incarnations of the genre inclines toward pure shock.

The grainy black and white of Night of the Living Dead had a realistic, documentary like feel. Dawn of the Dead is more cinematic, yet still claustrophobic  Set mostly in a shopping mall, the wide open spaces allow for more adventurous cinematography, while still making the viewer feel confined.  Also, the banal earth tones of indoor malls provide a disturbing counterpoint to the horror.

The film begins with survivors of an ongoing zombie apocalypse seal themselves off in a shopping center.  The first 20 minutes are extremely violent as a TV crew films a raid on a ghetto as troops are clearing out a minority neighborhood. It looks like a reenactment of the Vietnam War. From the first sequence, its clear the zombies are not the most dangerous villain.  One character cynically observes that the rednecks will probably survive with their endless supply of guns.  The zombies are creepy, but the humans are capable of far more monstrous acts.

Romero shot the movie in Pittsburgh and used a cast of unknowns to great effect.  The four major characters are all flawed in their own way.  But they also show courage and intelligence.  As they set up their consumer's paradise, the mall becomes a character unto itself.  My favorite sequence is when the survivors indulge themselves with food, clothes, guns - in a moment of pure consumerist utopia (its the film equivalent to Don Delillo's mall as paradise sequence in his 1985 novel White Noise).  Has anyone not fantasized about a unlimited shopping spree?  Then again, how do you feel after making that grand purchase?  It's fleeting.

And the film's entertainment factor is a bit fleeting by the end.  There's really no where to go with the story.  The final 20 minutes feature an outburst of zombie on biker violence.  Well, it just gross.  By today's standards a bit tame, but still potent.  The soundtrack by Dario Argento is creepy - an unsettling collage of synthesizers, elevator and carnival music.

Romero went on to direct four more zombie flicks, including three made in the last decade.  Dawn of the Dead still works because it's not really a zombie film at all.  It's about humanity.  We root for the rational side in all of us to survive when those ghouls are outside patiently waiting.

(Prior to his July 15, 1979 speech Carter conferred for two weeks in secrecy with leaders from all areas of society to save his fledgling presidency.  I highly doubt they screened Dawn of the Dead).



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